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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Yea 'Aloha' is Super White, But What's Up With the Way We're Talking About It?

From left to right Aloha stars: sovereignty activist Dennis "Bumpy" Pu'uhonua Kanahele (as himself), Bradley Cooper (as a white guy), and Emma Stone (as a white person playing a mixed-race Hawaiian/Chinese/Swedish person) [image source]

by Sharon H Chang

Okay first let's just get this out of the way. Aloha is a really, really bad movie. Like REALLY bad. It's getting horrible reviews (as it should) for lousy directing, a terrible script, mismatched A-list actors, poor production etc. It's boring as hell to watch. I'm not going to even bother giving a a story synopsis here because the plot is so pointless and uninteresting, it doesn't matter anyway. If you want or need a synopsis, it's easy to find one online. Just do a web search.

No all you need to know, if you don't already, is this: Set in Hawaii where Native Hawaiians continue to be besieged by whites and the military, the movie centers white people and the U.S. military anyway, all of which is supposedly made better by the conceit of a military-serving mixed-race Hawaiian/Chinese/Swedish character, who is actually played by a white actress.

Yup. Pretty much.

I saw this movie not because I wanted to (believe me there were so many other things I'd rather have been doing on a sunny day in Seattle), but because I felt I needed to. It's rare that any sort of discussion about mixed-race/Asian intersections enters public discourse. So when it does, it's a really important opportunity to get a glimpse into how society views and thus treats people of multiracial Asian descent.

I think almost everyone acknowledges/agrees here that casting a white woman in the role of mixed-race woman of color is crap; that blatant Hollywood whitewashing against a Hawaiian backdrop merely renews the license on an insidious practice that keeps marginalizing people of color. But as the scathing reviews keep rolling in, here's what I'm really noticing: "Why is Emma Asian", "Emma Stone Isn't Asian", "Not Buying Emma Stone As An Asian-American", "Emma Stone As An Asian", "Asian Emma Stone".

Do you see it too? This is a film set in Hawaii which yes, doesn't depict the many Asians who live there and alludes to yellow peril, but ultimately is a place that belongs to (and has been stolen from) the Hawaiian people. And yet in our conversations somehow this crucial point seems to be getting subsumed under the shadow of politicized Asian America. Even multiraciality seems to be less interesting to the public than that a character was supposed to be a 'quarter' Chinese. To be fair, reviewers do mention Native Hawaiians, Hawaiian culture, history and oppression to varying degrees (they sort of have to), but it's pretty clear the fact of Stone's non-Asian-(sometimes-mixed)-ness, is the one calling shotgun:

"...[multiracial people] comprise the fastest-growing population in America. Which makes Crowe’s choice of Stone as the melanin-free embodiment of Hawaiian soul and one of the most prominent part-Asian characters ever to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film so baffling."
- Entertainment Weekly
"Emma Stone, a white actress best known for her role as a white savior with a heart of gold in 'The Help,' plays a character who is ostensibly the result of an Asian penis interacting with a white vagina." 
- The Frisky
- Salon 
Aloha actually features one of the more prominent Asian/mixed heritage female leads in any studio movie in recent memory. She just happens to be played by Emma Stone. 
- The Daily Beast
"In an industry that already severely lacks Asian representation on the big screen, they get EMMA STONE to play an Asian...Have you learned nothing from Breakfast at Tiffany's? It's offensive. And it's offensive to let the talents of many Asian actors go to waste. Plus, it's just plain rude pulling this during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month."
- Complex

As far as I can tell, none of these mainstream reviewers are of Native Hawaiian descent and less than half are of mixed descent.

This, I don't like. At. All. I'm deeply invested in exploring the facets of a mixed-race Asian identity and looking at the many questions it raises in a raced/racist world. But I am not interested in a conversation about that identity which moves towards anti-indigeneity. This is what I see as the Hapa narrative, where mixed-race gets used as a wedge to further divide people of color while advancing white supremacy; something I wrote about in "Say Hapa, With Care" for AAPI Voices (2014):

The hapa of [Native Hawaiian] people stands in stark contrast to a widely commodified version, which lumps together mixed-race Asians and Pacific Islanders and then somehow magically loses the Pacific Islander part. This is no accident (whether intentional or not). It stems from a history that has sought to forget and remove Native peoples for centuries.

This is why, over the weekend, I called my fierce Native Hawaiian friend, scholar and activist Maile Arvin again to get her weigh in. And this is why, right now, I'm going to stop talking about my analysis immediately and let hers take final-center stage. 
[image source]

Maile was completely even-keeled, unruffled and unsurprised by the whitewashing of Aloha:

Hollywood doesn’t usually do well by Hawaiians. The tourism industry depends on all these movies about white romance in Hawaii. It’s not lucrative for Hollywood or tourism to tell any other story. There are so many movies that are shot in Hawaii and often they’re not identified as [being in] Hawaii, like Lost or Jurassic Park. Hawaii is often used as the backdrop for all these stories that are about uninhabited islands - or - if it’s about Hawaii, it’s about white people falling in love.

She said she'd heard the movie-makers were claiming, in their defense, that Cameron Crowe loves, adores and respects Hawaii; that he researched his film for months and worked to incorporate the story of the Hawaiian people. But, she replied:

I’m not really interested in what they think is a more culturally competent movie but still is a white romance. It's fundamentally flawed. It’s about a military contract and using Hawaii to protect the US from China and Japan...I haven’t seen critique of that. I've seen a lot of critique of the word ‘Aloha’ [but] more fundamentally it’s a settler/colonial movie. It’s not just about the name of it but the story they tell about Hawaii.

What Maile said she's been far more interested to see is so many articles criticizing Aloha's whitewashing when, by contrast, Descendants (which also featured a mixed-race Hawaiian character played by white actor George Clooney) drew so little attention in 2011:

It seems like the Emma Stone character being Asian has sparked more critique than Descendants. Nobody seemed to have a problem with George Clooney playing a Hawaiian. [So] for a large audience, Hawaiians looking white isn’t a problem, but a mixed Asian person looking white is unbelievable. Which is kind of disturbing. The wider public thinks that Hawaiians could look like Emma Stone, but if they’re mixed with Asian, they can’t. It seems connected to larger problems like the API [Asian Pacific Islander] designation and Asian Americans speaking on behalf or over Pacific Islanders. It shows gaps in solidarity.

In conclusion, she powerfully spoke on the kind of intention/action it really takes to build coalitions and work in alliance with the Native Hawaiian community:
There are definitely a lot of mixed families and people who are Asian and Hawaiian. They are not necessarily always in conflict. At the same time, a lot of people who aren’t mixed [Hawaiian] grew up on the island and identify as Hawaiian. That’s the same problem. It just covers up Native Hawaiians again. And Native Hawaiians are erased from so many things. It’s important to be clear about how you represent yourself. For example, there are some Asian American activists [in Hawaii] that identify themselves as Asian settlers. Some people hate that idea. But it's a way to express solidarity and really involve in activism with Native Hawaiians.

I think we need to be very very careful, aware, and far more thoughtful about the ways we critique this film. At this point I'm maybe even less concerned with Cameron Crowe (who's an idiot) and his dumb movie, and way more worried about us. If we're truly outraged by Hollywood whitewashing because it invisibilizes and erases, do we do much better when we erase too? Aren't we just cloning the same that's been done to us? Emma Stone should not have been cast in a person of color role. I one hundred percent agree. But let us never forget what that role was truly supposed to be. Not just an Asian one - but a very marginalized Indigenous and mixed-race one too.


Undoing racism is about uplifting oppressed voices, remembering forgotten histories, and not allowing our own suffering to become more important than the suffering of others. In thinking on Aloha, please make sure you are also hearing/centering Native Hawaiian voices and the story of Native Hawaiian peoples:

"Say Hapa, With Care"

"Possessions of Whiteness: Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness in the Pacific"

"On Cameron Crowe's Aloha and Indigenous Pacific Films We Actually Recommend"


  1. I love this friend Maile of yours! She said exactly what we've all known for years!

    Nobody seemed to have a problem with George Clooney playing a Hawaiian. [So] for a large audience, Hawaiians looking white isn’t a problem, but a mixed Asian person looking white is unbelievable. Which is kind of disturbing.

    So true, it IS disturbing. I haven't been reading much of the backlash printed with the exception of this. And thanks for sharing this, this is definitely something worth sharing because I know my other Hawaiian friends will say the same thing as Maile thought, and what I always knew as well.

  2. If I remember right, George Clooney was a distant descendant, meaning very little Hawaiian was left in him. I think that may be why he wasn't as targeted as much as Emma Stone. I grew up in Hawaii and think it's completely absurd that George Clooney could pass for Hawaiian, or any of those white guys playing his relatives in the movie, but Emma Stone being a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian is laughable because they're claiming only half of her is white. Stupid.

  3. Isn't Emma Stone's character based on a girl who "looks" white but who has Hawaiian heritage?

    I come from a multi-cultured background, both grandmothers were "people of color" one an Indonesian immigrant and the other from a Native American "reservation", yet I look white if I was casted in this role of an Asian-American would you be offended?

    Not saying there isn't a race / gender problem in Hollywood there most certainly is but just bc someone is white doesn't mean they have no ethic background. That is story of this character looking white but having heritage.

    From Crowe:

    "As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one. A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.”

    If she didn't "over-explain every chance she gets" in the movie would this be an issue? Maybe that was the difference between The Descendants and Aloha?

  4. "I’m not really interested in what they think is a more culturally competent movie but still is a white romance. It's fundamentally flawed. It’s about a military contract and using Hawaii to protect the US from China and Japan...I haven’t seen critique of that. I've seen a lot of critique of the word ‘Aloha’ [but] more fundamentally it’s a settler/colonial movie. It’s not just about the name of it but the story they tell about Hawaii."

    >> Nailed it

  5. Some Americans think Pacific Islanders are Asian, that might be part of the problem.

  6. the absurdity in 'Aloha' is that American-born Emma Stone is IRISH (dad) - SWEDISH (mom)!
    whilst in America, intermixing of post-war Ameri-Anglo-Europeans (caucasians: light or dark) is a given, and constantly promoted in hollywood+media, any other combination where an East-Asian American male (as husband or father) with a white ameri-anglo-european girl is completely absent, so how could the 'Ng' (Chinese grand-dad) manage to connect with a Swedish grand-mom?!?! (in Hawaii? a Hawaiian mom with a Swedish mom or dad? both also just as unlikely) ... did the Chinese Ng guy diminish his hollywood low appeal by upgrading to mating with a Hawaiian lady? ... which then produced a Chinese-Hawaiian Ng guy finally seemed hollywood appealing to a Swedish lady ... and produced the EmmaStone Ng character?! however it is contrived, these scenarios are invisible in America (and would make for more interesting stories themselves, which hollywood is blind to)

  7. I am so glad that I found this post. I'm mixed race Pacific Islander (Hawaiian and Chamorro) / hapa wahine who is very fair skinned and who has always felt really low about myself growing up because of depictions of Hawaiians and other POC in mainstream media. I didn't understand this self esteem issue until fairly recently, but now that I am coming to understand just how damaging these depictions and discussions, I am super determined to talk about them with my kids.

    I recently wrote a blog post about my own experiences, and hope it's okay to share it here:

  8. The performances are well done; although the age difference between Cooper and Stone is noticeable and troublesome.